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Every Organ Tells a Story 4: A History of Anatomical Terms
The dissection of human cadavers in order to learn anatomy dates back to Greek Physicians in the 3rd century. Egyptians also had some working knowledge of the human anatomy through their dissection and embalming, but this was not systematically captured and studied.
The Roman anatomists and physicians were forbidden to study human cadavers and confined their interest to Barbary apes and macaques. Although their anatomy was similar there were differences between human and ape anatomy. This led to the later challenge by medieval anatomists on Galen’s theories and postulates on the workings of the human body.
It is unclear whether the medieval Muslim world had a law to forbid dissection. A few Arabic physicians were in favour of the practice to dissect and study cadavers. They compiled some useful information in medieval anatomic texts between 11th and 13th centuries. Ibn- Zuhr, Al Ghazali and Abd-el-latif were all popular Arabic physicians of the day who contributed to the knowledge of anatomy. However, the practice was not extensive and led to limited advancement in the overall knowledge.
Contrary to what many believe, the Christian world did not prohibit dissection and many anatomists flourished in medieval Europe. Individual governments however had throughout history changed laws on dissection of cadavers and anatomists had fallen in and out of favour.
Starting from the 13th century the dissection of cadavers became a popular public spectacle and theatres were specially designed to exhibit such process. Many medieval painters such as Rembrandt were able to travel, observe and paint these events and also learn anatomy in the process. This helped them make their paintings and sculptures very life-like.
Vesalius was one of the more popular contributors to the body of work performing many dissections in the 16th century. His public dissections in Padua were popular and were a great spectacle.
In England well until 16th century dissection of human cadavers was forbidden. Later the Royal College of Physicians and the Company of Barber Surgeons were allowed to perform dissections.
As medical schools mushroomed all over England and Scotland, the demand for cadavers increased so much that soon there was a thriving black market for bodies. Capitalising on market forces two Irish opportunists Brendan Burke and William Hare lured up to 17 victims in Edinburgh ( loners, prostitutes, travellers) and killed them by plying them with alcohol and smothering them ( this method later entered the dictionary as Burking) They sold the murdered bodies to anatomists for a tidy sum, no questions were asked.
The eventual execution of Burke ( Hare turned King’s witness)and the huge outcry led to the Anatomy act of 1832, legalising the supply of cadavers from destitute deaths and executions.
In a gory turn of events, after his public execution Burke himself was dissected publicly and his organs, death mask are displayed at Edinburgh museum.
Continuing our voyage...
In our trip through the various organs, this time let us do a bit of teeth grinding, marvel at our muscles, perhaps visit the pleasure mound of venus, muse at the minuscule ossicle shaped like a hammer and visit the chambers of the heart. Incidentally the letter M has given us so many little treasures, we have confined our anatomical study to the organs and structures beginning with M in this chapter..
At the very back of the eye lies the Retina - the screen on which light impinges when it goes through the aperture of the pupils. The Retina is our photo screen and it cleverly translates the light signals into images and transmits them to the brain through the optic nerve.
When viewed through the pupil shows a little shadowy area that is known as the macula . This is Latin for a spot or a stain .
In old age a degenerative change that occurs in the retina that causes blurring of vision is known as macular degeneration .
The word macula has also given us immaculate (meaning spotless or stainless) as in the immaculate conception.
Virgin Mary herself is called immaculata , as she was kept sin free and ‘full of grace’ by God in anticipation of harbouring the child of God. This refers to the fact that all humans are born into Original sin , or the sin of the fall of man, this is redeemed by baptism. However, in the case of Virgin Mary she was stain free or immaculate from the time of her conception so she can be Holy Mary, Mother of Jesus.
There is an incorrect assumption made in the media that the term Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Jesus, according to theological texts, this is not true. The ‘virginal conception’ and incarnation of Jesus Christ is distinct from the ‘Immaculate conception’ of Mary, the one full of Grace and virtue, shielded by the original sin by God.
There are four chambers in the heart. These are the two smaller Atria and the two larger Ventricles. The Atria communicate with the ventricle through a passage between them. The passage are controlled by valves that close and open based on the stage of the heart beat.
The valve that controls the flow between left atrium and left ventricle is called the Mitral valve or bicuspid valve. It has two cusps or flaps that come together to close and drop down to open.
The anatomists could see the similarities between this valve and the Episcopalian head wear . They called it after the Bishops Mitre . The mitre has two flap like protrusions as you can see from the picture- indicating the bicuspid nature of the Mitral valve.
The Bishops mitre originates from liturgical headgear from Byzantine times. The original turban worn by priests in Israel was conical headdress with a golden bade inscribed ‘holiness to Y.H.W.H.’
The Mitral valve can sometimes prolapsed causing blood to leak back into the atrium during ventricular contractions or can become stenosed and narrow from diseases such as rheumatic fever.
The molar teeth are named aptly after their function. The molars are designed for grinding. Neither the incisors ( biting) or canines ( tearing) can grind the food into the semi-solid paste that makes it conducive to swallowing. Chewing and grinding also mixes the food with saliva and helps break down certain ingredients already and allows it to be swallowed with ease.
The Romans used a millstone for grinding known as the mola. This consisted of two shaped stones sitting on top of each other with a hollow at the top to allow the grain to be poured in. The stone is then rotated with a handle or by an animal (in case of larger mills) and the rotary motion caused the friction between them to grind the grain. Very much like how the molars work.
From the millstone, mola comes our molars.
As mother always said, chew and grind your food before swallowing. That’s what you are molars are waiting for. Use them, I say.
The Malleus is an ‘ossicle’. This means literally a ‘little bone’. And little it is .
Malleus ( hammer) , along with the Incus ( anvil ) and the Stapes (stirrup ) are the three ossicles that are attached to our eardrum and help to transfer and amplify the vibrations of the ear drum from sound waves and create sound signals towards the middle ear.
The Malleus is so called as it resembles an ancient Roman hammer. This root also gives rise to the word malleable , which means something that can be hammered into shape, made into thin sheets like a piece of metal that is malleable.
They are our sound wave amplifiers helping to increase the vibrations 20-30 times making us hear even the slightest rustle and whisper. The three ossicles work as a single unit in unison as you can see from the accompanying animation courtesy of youtube.
Just imagine every time your tympanic membrane vibrates with sound, every nuance is transmitted by these three musketeers!
Wonderful, isn’t it. Any fault in this system can result in conductive deafness. ENT surgeons nowadays can actually replace the destroyed ossicles and patch up the ear drum by a process called tympanoplasty.
The mons is the subtle pad of fat over the pubic bone in females called the mons pubis ( the pubic mound) or the Mons Veneris ( the mound of venus). Anatomically this is meant to protect the pelvic bone . The equivalent pad of fat in men is called Mons Jovis ( mound of Jupiter ) but only in old texts and archaic terminology.
Such association with Venus, the Goddess of love, shows the medieval anatomists were a saucy bunch with a sense of humour.
The term ‘venereal’ disease actually comes from the term veneris or ‘ of venus’.
Venus ( or Aphrodite in the Greek myths) was married to Hephaestus. He was the Titan who made beautiful jewellery and armours , forever confined to his blacksmiths chamber surrounded by fire and brimstone. He was an ugly fellow in appearance, all hunched and claw footed, but his heart was gold. Aphrodite however cuckolded him with his brother, the God of war, Ares.
The Romans reckoned the volcanic eruptions were Hephaestus’ anger at finding out about the affair- he exposed his wife's adulterous nature to the Olympians, only to have them laugh at him.
The ancient physicians probably also reckoned the fierce itching and burning that accompanied the venereal disease was the curse of Hephaestus.
The word Mons is Latin for mountain and the astronomical nomenclature names many mountains in venus and mars as Mons. The mountainous state Montana is also aptly named and so is the green hills of Vermont.
The Astronomical observers also used the Latin word Mons to describe mountains in Venus and Olmypus Mons in Mars, one of the largest mountain range visible to mankind perhaps.
Been studying muscles all these years and attempting to build a few of my own, but little did I know that the name muscle comes from mus ( Latin for mouse ). Muscle means a little mouse.
We are not clear whether the Romans anatomists were referring to the movements of muscles under the skin that sometimes resembles that of a mouse. Or whether the appearances of the pink muscles with their tendons (that look like tails) may have reminded the dissectors of a bunch of mice clustered together.
And if you thought the similar sounding mussels ( the molluscs) for the delicious seafood is coincidental, think again. Allegedly the mussel shells remind us of the mouse ears and hence, mussels.
I like freshly steamed mussels in a garlic and tomato sauce with some rosemary and a pinch of paprika drizzled with some white wine maybe. A generous squeeze of half a lemon over it and et voila!
Don’t forget to wear a napkin tucked in front of you. Accompanied by a glass if chilled dry white like a Sauvignon blanc or a Chardonnay.
Mmmmm hmmm. Now where was I?